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Decision No. 14,349

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Appeal of PHILIP B. CHRISTE from action of the Board of Education of the Bedford Central School District and Bruce L. Dennis, Superintendent, regarding trip expenditures.

Decision No. 14,349

(April 27, 2000)

Ingerman Smith, L.L.P., attorneys for respondents, Lawrence W. Reich, Esq., of counsel.

MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioner appeals a decision by the Board of Education of the Bedford Central School District ("respondent board") and its superintendent, Dr. Bruce L. Dennis ("respondent superintendent"), to use public moneys to pay certain travel costs for teacher chaperones on student trips to Spain and France in March 1999. The appeal must be sustained in part.

On or about September 29, 1998, the Fox Lane High School ("Fox Lane") Foreign Language Department ("the department") submitted a proposal to respondent superintendent for trips to Spain and France for students then enrolled in Spanish and French classes ("proposal"). The department sought approval of these trips as school-sponsored activities.

Participation in the trips was not open to all students. To be eligible, students had to be enrolled in Spanish or French language classes, have demonstrated a commitment to language and cultural learning, be recommended by past and present foreign language teachers, and submit two letters of recommendation from other Fox Lane faculty. Students who had experienced serious behavior and/or discipline problems in or out of school were not eligible. The proposal also noted that students in class levels 1 and 2 were ineligible to participate, although the applications for the trips purported to include such students. A maximum of 40 students could participate in each trip. Foreign language teachers were to serve as chaperones, with a ratio of approximately 8 students to 1 chaperone.

The cost for each student participant was estimated at $1700, which included the "cost of chaperones." The proposal stated that the department hoped to provide 10% of the participating students with partial scholarships by holding a fundraising event, seeking community donations and seeking funds from respondents. The department also requested assistance from respondents in establishing criteria for need-based scholarships, and asked to have the participating teacher-chaperones covered by a comprehensive school district insurance policy for personal liability.

In previous years, student groups had taken similar trips and respondent board indicates that it had viewed those trips as "private undertakings between the chaperones and students," not as school-sponsored activities. Although the record does not indicate that there was any difference in the format or objectives of the 1999 trips as compared to the previous years, respondent board unanimously voted at its October 7, 1998 meeting to support the trips as "school-sponsored trips this year." The department was directed to report back to respondent board on plans for financial aid.

At respondent board’s December 2, 1998 meeting, respondent superintendent advised the board that a number of students would need more than the maximum amount of aid available to participate in the trips. Respondent board unanimously voted to cover any shortfall from moneys obtained through fundraising activities, which were to be used equally for all students. This resolution was rescinded at respondent board's December 16, 1998 meeting, and, in lieu thereof, the board adopted a resolution to assume the trip costs of no more than six teacher-chaperones, for a total amount not to exceed $10,000.

This appeal ensued. Petitioner's request for interim relief was denied on February 4, 1999. The trips departed on March 25, 1999, and returned on April 2, 1999, during the district's spring recess. The record reflects that the expenses of the teacher-chaperones were defrayed to the extent authorized by respondent board's December 16, 1998 resolution.

Petitioner contends that the December 2 and December 16, 1998 resolutions authorized the use of public funds to subsidize private travel, in violation of Articles VII and VIII of the New York State Constitution. Petitioner also questions whether territory limitations in the district's casualty insurance policies would subject the district to unbudgeted and uninsured liabilities in the event of a claim arising out of the trips. Petitioner further asserts that respondent superintendent improperly denied his Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL") request for documents. Petitioner requests that I determine that respondents misused public funds for private purposes and invalidate the December 16 resolution.

Respondents assert that the trips were school-sponsored field trips, and that it was appropriate and consistent with the practices of many school districts to defray a portion of the expenses for teachers to act as chaperones. Respondents state that the trips served important educational purposes by allowing the students to have direct contact with a foreign culture and develop additional language skills. Respondents further contend that petitioner's claims regarding the December 2, 1998 resolution are moot because the resolution was rescinded on December 16, 1998, and that the district's liability insurance policies provided coverage during the trips.

Respondents also raise two procedural objections, that the Commissioner lacks jurisdiction to entertain claims asserted under FOIL, and that the entire appeal should be dismissed as moot since the trips have been completed.

I will first address these procedural objections. Respondents are correct that the appropriate forum for addressing alleged FOIL violations is the Supreme Court of the State of New York, not a "310 appeal to the Commissioner of Education (Public Officers Law "89; Appeal of Razzano, 39 Ed Dept Rep ___, Decision No. 14,244; Appeal of Breud, et al., 38 id. 748, Decision No. 14,133). Therefore, I lack jurisdiction to consider petitioner's FOIL claims.

I disagree that the appeal should be dismissed in its entirety as moot. The Commissioner determines only matters in actual controversy and will not render a determination on an issue which subsequent events have laid to rest (Appeal of Goldin, 39 Ed Dept Rep ___, Decision No. 14,250; Appeal of June D., 38 id. 596, Decision No. 14,101; Appeal of Schuler, 37 id. 512, Decision No. 13,915). However, an appeal will be entertained where the controversy is of a character that is likely to recur not only with respect to the same parties but with respect to others as well (Appeal of Goldin, supra; Appeal of Feiss, 37 Ed Dept Rep 339, Decision No. 13,874). The issue of whether respondents are authorized to use public funds to defray the expenses for teachers to serve as chaperones on student trips is likely to recur, since the record indicates that district students have taken similar trips in previous years, and respondents specifically contend that they are following a practice common to many school districts. I, therefore, decline to dismiss this appeal as moot.

The appeal must be sustained in part. It is improper to use public funds to subsidize a trip that is essentially a private recreational experience and not a part of a school district’s educational program. Article VIII, section 1 of the New York State Constitution prohibits a school district from giving or loaning property or money to any individual or private organization for private purposes.

It is well recognized that school field trips are an integral part of the educational experience (seeWolman v. Walter, 433 US 229, 254 [1977]). Public school districts have inherent authority under subdivisions 3, 5 and 33 of Education Law "1709 to include field trips as part of the district's educational curriculum (Cook v. Griffin, 47 AD2d 23, 28 [4th Dept 1975]). However, the record before me and respondents’ actions evidence that the trips in this case were essentially private trips rather than an integral part of the foreign language department's educational program, irrespective of the incidental educational benefit to the students.

I am not persuaded, upon the record before me, that respondent board was exercising its authority to prescribe a course of study for district students (Education Law "1709[3]), provide for the instruction of pupils in the foreign language classes ("1709[5]), or exercise superintendence, management and control of the district's educational affairs ("1709[33]), when it adopted the December 1998 resolutions. For example, the disciplinary and behavior policy set forth in the proposal is not related whatsoever to the district's conduct code or rules, and merely requires students to follow the rules or regulations established by the chaperones. There is no indication in the proposal that students would be subject to school disciplinary action under Education Law "3214 for misbehavior during the trips. Neither the proposal nor respondent board's December 1998 resolutions reflect any input by respondents into the content or planning of the trips, the educational objectives of the trips, or how the knowledge gained during the trips would be utilized, if at all, in the class curriculum upon the students' return.

Other relevant factors to be considered, in evaluating whether a particular student trip should be considered a school activity, include whether the trip was an approved part of the educational program of the school, occurred during the regular school day and year and was recognized as appropriate for academic credit. The student trips in the instant appeal do not meet these criteria. The trips were scheduled during a school recess; the department's proposal contains no provision for any academic credit resulting from participation, or penalty for not participating in the trip; and participation was not open to all students who were enrolled in foreign language courses or who had a legitimate academic interest in foreign languages.

Because the students were responsible for paying the trip costs for chaperones, respondent board's assumption of $10,000 of such costs was essentially a subsidy to the individual students for that portion of the trip cost. Thus, the December 16, 1998 resolution was comparable to providing a scholarship or subsidy to participating students, to defray part of the cost of the trip, which is prohibited under the State Constitution (see Opn State Compt No. 81-238 [county legislators' scholarships for resident students attending county-sponsored community colleges are prohibited by Article VIII section 1 of the State Constitution]).

In view of the foregoing conclusion that the trips were not appropriate school-sponsored field trips, I need not address the remaining issues raised by the parties.

THE APPEAL IS SUSTAINED TO THE EXTENT INDICATED.

IT IS ORDERED that respondents refrain from using public moneys to subsidize student trips that are essentially private recreational trips rather than an integral part of the district's educational program.

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